The big story: The real issues behind the student protests

There are many factors at play in the ongoing student protests, so we’re going to try to summarise the most important ones for you. 

What’s happening: Protests erupted at Wits University last week, then spread to other public universities after historically indebted students weren’t allowed to register. They owe nearly R10bn to the country’s 26 public universities. These universities cannot simply “write off” the debt. They’d go bankrupt. Student leaders threatened a nationwide shutdown, but it’s not clear if it happened. TUT, for one, noted its solidarity but opted out of the protests to allow its students to focus on their exams.  

The root problem: In a nutshell: fall-out from Covid, plus poor financial planning and the inability to make tough decisions. As more parents lost their jobs thanks to Covid, more school-leaving children qualified for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas). At the same time the body was given below-inflation increases in the most recent government budget, on top of previous budget cuts. It was a perfect storm. 😥

Some background: Fierce student protests first broke out in 2015 and only sort of died away after then President Jacob Zuma delivered a poisoned chalice to his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, by promising free education in 2017. But even before the pandemic, the country’s national budget wasn’t properly prioritised to make this happen – and afterwards, well, our national budget was completely reworked to cope with this once-in-a-generation crisis: cabinet approved reductions of over R24-billion to higher education, including cutting Nsfas funding for loans and bursaries by over R6-billion. Given these cuts, it’s surprising that the guys in government themselves are surprised by the current outcry, and are only NOW scrambling for a solution. 

Can we even afford free education? Clearly not – for everyone at least. But we CAN make it available, as promised, for academically deserving students who just can’t afford it. After all, youth unemployment among graduates is dramatically lower than among their non-degree-holding peers. Only 1,8% of unemployed people were

graduates, according to the latest Labour Force Survey. 🎓

We’d do this by diverting it away from hopeless SOEs like SAA: government’s latest bailout to our national airline is about equal to that R10bn owed by students. Instead, authorities are now scrambling to plug Nsfas’s more than R6bn hole by taking money away from equally deserving sectors – but those that will make less noise. To quote higher education minister Blade Nzimande, we’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul. In this case, R3.3bn of the R6.3bn being diverted to Nsfas would be taken from the National Skills Fund, an agency set up mainly to support and upskill youth who are not employed.

If we don’t make those hard choices, we’ll see these protests time and again. It’s not fair to the students.